Posts Tagged ‘Civil Society’

Indigenous Leaders Need a Seat at the U.N. Table

Friday, December 23rd, 2016


“The anticipated increase in ship traffic in the Arctic is second in magnitude only to the initial arrival of European settlers on our shores.”

When my friend Austin Ahmasuk, a leader from Nome, Alaska, said this, it really hit me just how dramatically the world is changing for Arctic indigenous peoples whose lives are inextricably tied to the bounty of the sea.

Yet the most important international institution for Arctic waters has no indigenous voices weighing in on rules that will profoundly affect the ways of life of the region’s peoples.

In fact, that institution had never even heard one. Until this past fall.

“We’re very much dependent on marine animals for our diet and sustenance,” said Tagak Curley, an indigenous statesman from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. Tagak is one of six indigenous leaders Pacific Environment invited to London to address the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a U.N. agency that imposes environmental and safety rules on ships.

Indigenous peoples across the Arctic practice traditional ways of life closely connected to the waters on which they rely for food. Photo credit: Austin Ahmasuk

Indigenous peoples across the Arctic practice traditional ways of life closely connected to the waters on which they rely for food. Photo credit: Austin Ahmasuk

In assembly sessions and one-on-one meetings, the indigenous leaders vividly described to international policy makers what’s at stake for Arctic communities in the face of melting sea ice and an anticipated exponential increase in ship traffic.

When a ship approaches, marine mammals often flee to get away from the vessel, pushing them out of indigenous hunting areas. As melting sea ice opens up new routes and extends the shipping season, this is happening more often and in more places than ever before. As a result, hunters have to travel farther than ever, at greater personal risk, and with less certainty of where to find the animals they rely on for food.

Eduard Zdor, a Chukchi leader from the Russian Arctic, moved everyone when he described how difficult it is to preserve his culture, yet how much he wants his grandson to learn the ways of his people and the hunt and to stand up one day and say, proudly, “I am a Chukchi!”

The indigenous leaders also warned about a toxic, cheap fuel oil that powers ships traveling through the Arctic. When burned, it spews lung-irritating, heat-capturing “black carbon” soot that settles on sea ice and accelerates Arctic warming. If spilled, this dangerous oil would be impossible to clean up in Arctic conditions and would devastate wildlife and cause long-term damage to Arctic ecosystems and indigenous food security.

“We don’t need it up here, said Tagak. “That’s definitely one we’ll be pushing to see that it is banned from the Arctic.” Indeed, this toxic oil has already been banned in the Antarctic.

As sea ice melts, ship traffic increases, interfering with wildlife migrations and breeding and increasing the risk of a catastrophic oil spill. Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard/ Charly Hengen

As sea ice melts, ship traffic increases, interfering with wildlife migrations and breeding and increasing the risk of a catastrophic oil spill. Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard/ Charly Hengen

The Arctic panelists made a deep impression on their audience. The IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim was so moved, he did something unusual: He made a personal statement on the importance of hearing directly from indigenous Arctic peoples.

“We fired on all cylinders,” said Austin. “The result was an educational eye-opener for the IMO delegates, who have never considered the link between their shipping rules and a healthy Arctic environment and food security for people living there.”

Six Arctic indigenous leaders made a strong case to policy makers that they need a seat at the table and that no one else can adequately represent their unique interests. Photo credit: International Maritime Organization

Six Arctic indigenous leaders made a strong case to policy makers that they need a seat at the table and that no one else can adequately represent their unique interests. Photo credit: International Maritime Organization

Connecting Arctic indigenous peoples to policy makers was only a first step. Pacific Environment is now collaborating with indigenous leaders to determine how they can become a permanent presence at IMO negotiations.

The testimonials of these leaders made it very clear to the U.N. delegates that indigenous peoples need their voices heard, and that no one else—not environmental groups, not national governments—can adequately represent the unique mosaic of Arctic indigenous peoples.

“We would like for our indigenous people to have a seat at the table during these changing times. Pacific Environment realizes how the ocean is our garden, and I’m truly grateful that they helped us be part of this important process and will continue doing so in the future,” said Verner Wilson III of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Protecting Russian Rivers from Illegal Mining

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016


People have been searching for gold for thousands of years. It’s an enduring dream that anyone can strike it rich by sieving river mud in search of that big gold nugget that will change their life.

Few ever imagine the terrible consequences of mining rivers for gold.

In the Altai region in southern Siberia, gold miners are building roads through untouched wilderness wetlands and forests, disturbing wildlife fighting for survival. Mining waste poisons the drinking water of local villagers with chemicals and toxic metals like mercury. And heavy machinery rips up river floodplains, often destroying entire watersheds.

In Altai, large intact wetlands and forests act as carbon sinks and water purifiers. They also are home to owls, moose, deer, wolves, brown bears, wolverines, beavers and other wildlife.

In Altai, large intact wetlands and forests act as carbon sinks and water purifiers. They also are home to owls, moose, deer, wolves, brown bears, wolverines, beavers and other wildlife.

Pacific Environment’s partner Alexei Gribkov has been fighting an alarming increase in river gold mining in Altai with pioneering ingenuity. His work has been an inspiration to activists across Russia who want to end this outdated, highly destructive gold mining practice known as “placer gold mining.”

Alexei Gribkov and his organization, Gebler Ecological Society, collaborate with indigenous peoples, local activists, students and scientists to document rare species like the snow leopard and detect illegal mining and logging.

Alexei Gribkov and his organization, Gebler Ecological Society, collaborate with indigenous peoples, local activists, students and scientists to document rare species like the snow leopard and detect illegal mining and logging.

First, Alexei partnered with Pacific Environment to build a public website that uses satellite imagery to provide reliable information about mining operations, including the permit boundaries which are routinely disregarded by mining companies and rarely enforced by local authorities. These satellite images also show Alexei’s team where miners are digging up riverbeds—the cloudier the color of the river on the image, the greater the likelihood that it is being mined.

Then, citing the public’s right to know, he obtains access to government mining lease documents to compare them with the mining company’s actual operations in order to identify any legal violations.

Having identified sites of possible illegal activity, Alexei spends countless hours in the field to see the damage with his own eyes and collect photographic and other evidence.

Finally, armed with proof that miners are violating laws, Alexei relentlessly pressures the local environmental prosecutor to take action—with letters, phone calls and visits. He demands that the prosecutor launch an investigation, put a stop to all illegal activity and fine the company for breaking the law. If the violations are particularly severe, the license may even be cancelled.

Altai is a beautiful mountainous border region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.

Altai is a beautiful mountainous border region where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together.

Alexei by his nature is a fighter for justice. Through creativity, courage and sheer determination, his innovative tactics have secured impressive victories for Altai’s threatened wilderness:

  • Gold miner Horizon had to stop illegal operations in three (!) nature reserves after Alexei showed that the company ruined valuable fishing creeks and cut down ancient Siberian pine trees—destroying the entire river basin in the process.
  • Three new nature refuges were established to protect wetlands, lakes and forests, and another was enlarged to better protect owls, grouse, deer and badgers.
  • Several nature refuges now have stronger protections, including one that has banned mineral extraction and another prohibiting all logging.
  • Two regional protected areas are expected to be combined into one national park in 2017, a move that will increase protections for moose, brown bears, wolves, weasels and owls.
  • With Alexei’s support, several villages are organizing to halt new gold mining, which would destroy watersheds and pollute drinking water.

What’s more, Alexei’s work is transcending local boundaries and may help tip the balance toward a ban on placer gold mining in all of Russia.

In response to Alexei’s many documentations of the terrible destruction caused by river gold mining, which tends to be unprofitable to boot, the federal agency overseeing Russia’s natural resources is already citing Altai as an example of “what not to do.”

Seizing on this momentum, Pacific Environment is helping scale up Alexei’s work to other regions in Russia, including the spectacular Amur River basin.

We hosted a three-day workshop this past spring in Novosibirsk to connect Alexei with other Russian activists and U.S. mining experts to find new ways to fuse technology and activism. This workshop seeded a coordinated national campaign now under way to stop this destructive gold mining practice in other parts of the country.

These achievements demonstrate how much can be accomplished—even under terribly unfavorable political circumstances—when we support the vision and determined action of grassroots leaders.

Fighting destructive gold mining in a politically challenging environment requires grit and technological knowhow.

Fighting watershed destruction in a politically challenging environment requires grit and technological knowhow.

Alexei and his group, Gebler Ecological Society, won these impressive victories despite intense government repression.

Last year his organization was branded a “foreign agent” under a Russian law restricting citizen action by groups like Gebler. Ongoing court battles, loss of funding, and the prospect of steep fines have made Alexei and the Gebler team pull together even more.

And these challenges have brought into sharp focus Alexei’s tremendous courage and personal integrity. There are many months when he does not pay himself a salary so that he can afford field trips and keep staff in the organization.

“Resisting the state machine is very difficult,” says Alexei, “but we are not giving up.”

I Stood with Standing Rock Today

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

I woke up at 3:30 am today to start my trip into San Francisco to for an action to support the communities defending the Missouri River at Standing Rock, where the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens water and sacred land. I was thrilled to be part of this indigenous-led action by Idle No More Bay Area, which started at sunrise on Civic Center plaza, with prayers and calling in of the four directions. Participants formed a sea of blue – our clothing reflecting the theme of the water protectors.


As we marched to the US Army Corps of Engineers office on Market Street – with a line of indigenous women in the lead – we carried handmade signs and banners, chanted, and burned sage, copal and sweet grass (most of the handmade signs are being sent for use at Standing Rock after today’s rally).

When we arrived at the Army Corps’ office, we unfurled a parachute in the middle of Market Street, and rows of people sat around it. Indigenous women led a traditional round dance around the parachute sit-in, while indigenous men drummed and sang. I learned a round dance is a traditional way to occupy space. Others blocked the doors of the Army Corps building.

Pennie Opal Plant and other action spokespeople were called up to an Army Corps of Engineers’ General’s office, who asked Pennie to first lead the small group assembled there in a prayer. The meeting ended with hugs and promises that their office would do all they could to push on their counterparts to protect the Missouri River.

San Francisco police announced they would not be arresting protesters but held a safe space as thousands of people occupied Market Street for three hours, standing in solidarity with the water protectors at Standing Rock. We sent a strong message to the USACOE we got great media coverage, and I heard 80 other events took place today across the country.

And miraculously, earlier today, the USACOE already announced that they are re-opening talks with the tribes, and will consider denying the necessary permit to cross the Missouri altogether. I think if we keep pressure up on Obama, we can win this one…in the face of a climate change denying regime ahead of us, I believe it’s critical we try.

FIELD UPDATE: Frontline Environmental Groups Are Changing the Pollution Rules in China

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

When a mine leaks heavy metals into drinking water supply in China, or when school children fall sick due to contaminated soil, or when a factory exceeds its pollution permits for the 79th day in a row, whose job is it to respond?

Technically, these kinds of problems are the responsibility of China’s environmental enforcement arm: local Environmental Protection Bureaus (EPBs). Working from the provincial level down to towns, environmental officials have a robust toolkit of environmental laws and regulations to assist them in controlling pollution.

But practically speaking, they don’t have sufficient organizational strength or reach to deal with every issue that arises. Often local environmental groups are the first responders to a pollution crisis in China, and increasingly, these groups also play a role in ensuring problems don’t occur in the first place.

Take for example the issue of industrial parks. These mega-complexes have cropped up all over China in the past decade, in an attempt to keep industries out of residential zones. Two years ago, the local environmental group Green Stone (based in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province) realized that these industrial parks, far from better managing pollution problems, were merely concentrating pollutants and creating shields behind which industries could ignore pollution treatment regulations.

The ”Green Neighbors” program, which sheds light on the operations of industrial parks in the Nanjing metropolitan area, grew out of Green Stone’s volunteer monitoring network investigating industrial pollution throughout Jiangsu Province.

The ”Green Neighbors” program, which sheds light on the operations of industrial parks in the Nanjing metropolitan area, grew out of Green Stone’s volunteer monitoring network investigating industrial pollution throughout Jiangsu Province.

Green Stone launched its “Green Neighbors” program to shed light on the operations of industrial parks in the Nanjing metropolitan area, a region that produces many highly-polluting goods, such as furniture polishes, dyes and paints, electronics, and industrial chemicals. Green Stone started meeting with industrial park representatives together with EPB officials, using these forums to discuss the legal requirements around pollution information disclosure and public participation.

This year, Green Stone brought local citizens to the round-table discussions as well, resulting in one industrial park—well-known locally for the noxious odors it emits when producing the carcinogenic petrochemical alkyl benzene—agreeing to regularly disclose pollution data and allow a community committee to regularly monitor its operations.

Green Stone sees public supervision as a cornerstone of a cleaner future for China. As one staff member recently put it, “Even when the government adequately supervises environmental problems, and corporations have environmental governance systems in place, environmental problems will still not be effectively resolved; they require everyone living in the environment to engage in common efforts.”

Green Stone is now planning to expand its Green Neighbors program to other communities it serves, and it plans to share lessons learned from these efforts with other grassroots groups in China.

Green Stone’s Green Neighbors program is a great example of how public engagement allow industries and community members to work together to resolve pollution problems. Not only do communities need venues through which they can raise health and safety concerns, industries and government actors are often better served by hearing those concerns than turning a blind eye to community needs.

Recognizing these benefits, the public’s right to participate in environmental decision-making is now firmly enshrined in China’s environmental laws and regulations.


Pacific Environment’s annual network meeting in September 2016 brought together nine grassroots organizations from across China to share skills and plan campaigns.

Last month, Pacific Environment headed to China’s northeast to host its annual training and networking meeting for grassroots environmental groups from across the country. We met in a karaoke hall in a place called Mountain River Village, a cluster of brick homes and guesthouses interspersed between rows of corn and vegetables and surrounded by boreal forest.

This year’s trainings, role plays, and planning discussions all revolved around the topic of public participation in environmental decision making and how to take advantage of the new policy space opening up for grassroots environmental groups.

For example, new environmental regulations in China emphasize environmental hearings as an important public participation method, but so far, few of the hearings that have been organized have had real public participation.

To prepare groups to take better advantage of the opportunity presented by environmental hearings, we organized a mock hearing focusing on whether a local EPB should issue a new pollution permit to a factory that had repeatedly violated its pollution permits in the past. As the hearing reached its climax, the team portraying the local EPB criticized a pollution monitoring report introduced by the team portraying a local environmental group. “Where does your data come from?!” they shouted, “And why is this the first time we are seeing your report?!”

Meanwhile, the team portraying representatives from a local village started arguing amongst themselves, when one representative revealed she had accepted a color TV from the factory boss as a gift. As a real hearing might, our mock hearing ended without an actual decision on the permit, but we counted it as a successful learning exercise for these local environmental leaders who want to participate more meaningfully in pollution permitting and other decision processes.

Local environmental groups must prepare themselves well by forging strong ties with communities impacted by pollution, and also EPBs, often the primary audience they are trying to influence. Formal hearings are one promising avenue to exert such influence, but there is growing space to experiment with other methods as well.

So while some local groups like Green Stone are organizing multi-party discussion forums focused on specific pollution issues, other local groups using their influence to shape better environmental policies—a sphere that has traditionally been left to Beijing-based organizations and academics.

For example, Green Hunan (from Changsha, Hunan Province) recently collected feedback from local community members and other local environmental groups from across China on a recent draft of a national water pollution regulation. They compiled the feedback into a set of recommendations, such as ensuring that the new law upholds the same public participation and information disclosure language as the progressive Environmental Protection Law that came into force January 1, 2015.

The group hopes to engage in similar policy efforts in the future. “Green Hunan has had many on-the-ground successes on individual pollution cases,” a staff member explained, “and we want to do more to share our grassroots perspective in environmental policy discussions.”

Pacific Environment is proud to support the work of pioneering local environmental groups such as Green Hunan and Green Stone through our ongoing support program and our recently launched public participation initiative. We look forward to sharing further updates about how these groups and others are innovating in ways that help local communities contribute to positive environmental change.


FIELD UPDATE: If Russians start worrying about coal …

Monday, September 12th, 2016

When U.S. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met a few days ago to ratify and affirm the climate commitments they made in Paris, that rightly got the big headlines.


But the agreements of Paris grew from the work in the trenches, done in the years preceding, by hundreds and thousands of organizations and millions of people worldwide.

The lesson of Paris was that local citizen power multiplied again and again could lead the world’s leaders to start down the path to a clean energy world.

That’s why I’m excited to be flying this week to the Russian Far East to join a three-day gathering of folks wanting to focus in on the health harms caused by the use of coal in Russia.

The strategy sessions will include doctors and health scientists, environmental campaigners, indigenous leaders, and community activists—most will be from Russia but some from China, the Philippines, United States, and Europe.

We’re meeting in Vladivostok, a lovely coastal city on the Pacific Ocean sometimes compared to San Francisco because of its fine climate and scenic hills.


Vladivostok was once the center of the Soviet Union’s Pacific fleet and a navy company town, but these days it has a more diversified economy and a populace that takes advantage of its many restaurants and shops.

Vladivostok is also one of several cities in the region slated to construct new export terminals to ship coal to China or elsewhere. At our conference, we’ll hear from local government officials, epidemiologists, and other health professionals on the threat a coal export facility poses to the citizens of Vladivostok.

Other sessions will discuss harms from coal mining to small indigenous communities in Siberia, and the meetings will culminate with working sessions on strategies and communication plans to bring the lessons from the meeting out to a broader audience.


Watch this short documentary, Condemned, on the Russian coal industry, which forces Siberian indigenous people out of their native land in the region of Kuzbass—one of the world’s largest coal deposits where over 50 percent of Russian coal is extracted.

And you can bet that the conference attendees in Vladivostok are going to be well aware that community leaders in Oakland, California, just succeeded in stopping a planned coal export terminal on the east side of the Pacific Ocean. I know they’re going to find inspiration and feel a spirit of kinship with their California counterparts.

That’s the larger context of the meetings in Vladivostok this week. And it’s why there will be participants from the smallest villages near Vladivostok and from Moscow, Beijing, Boston, and elsewhere.

Local citizen power multiplied again and again. If local citizens and officials in the Russian Far East start weighing the health impacts of coal use, where can’t we win?

Chinese Enviro Group Uses Hazmat Suits to Protect a River

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015



When plans moved forward to build another dam across the heavily polluted Xiang River, members of Green Hunan’s volunteer network dressed up in white hazmat suits to alert the public to a major threat: The section of the river that would fill the reservoir had been used for decades as the city of Changsha’s sewage dump.

Green Hunan’s bold play went viral on China’s social media: this image had over 300,000 views and more than 10,000 shares.

Green Hunan’s bold play went viral on China’s social media: this image had over 300,000 views and more than 10,000 shares.


Once the dam was built, the wastewater would collect in the reservoir and pollute the city’s drinking water and damage already stressed river life.

Green Hunan’s bold publicity gained traction. Several big news outlets started following the story, even calling for swift clean up.

As a result, the local government finally began updating its sewage and wastewater systems, starting with renovations of three big pump stations that were releasing untreated wastewater into the river.

Signs that indicate where companies release polluted wastewater are a common sight along the Xiang River. Green Hunan campaigned to put these up to warn the public not to go swimming or fishing in these polluted river sections.

Signs that indicate where companies release polluted wastewater are a common sight along the Xiang River. Green Hunan campaigned to put these up to warn the public not to go swimming or fishing in these polluted river sections.


With only 18 days left until the deadline for the upgrades, Green Hunan’s volunteers were on site every day to monitor progress. In the end, the facilities completed the required renovations on time—marking a big win for Green Hunan, the Xiang River, and the citizens of Changsha.

In 2016, we will continue to work with grassroots groups like Green Hunan in Changsha to clean up rivers and pressure polluters to improve their environmental record or shut down.



Will the Paris Deal Protect the Most Vulnerable?

Wednesday, December 16th, 2015


On the last day of the Paris Climate Summit, I sat without internet at a related Arctic symposium. The plus side was that I paid attention to the speakers rather than checking my email. The downside was that I sat in suspense, wondering if the long-awaited agreement from the international talks would be announced. I felt a bit disconnected. Although we had set up a forum for our international partners to be heard in Paris, especially on impacts of coal, the final decisions were now being made by delegates in closed-door meetings.

I’m not the only one feeling disconnected. There are many voices from around the world that did not reach Paris, including my husband’s Native Village of Allakaket. In his tiny Arctic Alaska village, households lack running water, let alone internet. No one from Allakaket was invited to the Paris talks. Yet like many other Alaska Native communities, Allakaket is suffering from flooding, erosion, and changes to wildlife on which villagers depend. Because of shoreline erosion and rising sea levels, a number of these villages must relocate.


Coastal Arctic communities are on the front lines of climate change and oil and gas development. Goldman Environmental Prize photo

In the Arctic, there is no lack of challenge or irony. The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, but many Arctic places are centers of intensive oil and gas drilling. Communities near these places have benefited from modern conveniences brought by oil revenues.

Those of us who live with modern conveniences, myself included, can’t imagine being without them. Some residents of Arctic communities that enjoy electricity and public health services are insulted when people from the lower 48 suggest that they stop drilling their oil reserves. They ask, “Do you expect us to sit in the dark so you can feel good about saving the environment?”

Vulnerable communities from developing countries are asking the same question. There are more than seven billion of us on this planet, and we all want to live comfortably.

So I raised the question at the Arctic Symposium, “Shouldn’t our governments be helping provide an alternative to oil and gas development?”  I targeted the question at the State of Alaska, which has concentrated its economic development in the oil sector rather than fostering a more diversified, resilient economy.

How do we provide for communities that still lack basic amenities, prepare for adaptations needed on the front lines of climate change, and move toward a sustainable economy not based on fossil fuel extraction, all while giving those who live in the region a voice in these decisions? If we from privileged backgrounds want people to put aside their dirty coal and oil, then we have a responsibility to help pay for their sustainable, responsible development—development that avoids adding to our greenhouse gas burden.

The Paris Agreement takes several steps in the right direction. It sets a goal of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, but recognizes the need to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees to avoid incremental damage.  Countries must submit plans every five years outlining their emissions reductions. Forest protection is encouraged as a means to absorb carbon.

And this is perhaps the first of any climate agreement to recognize the need for compensation for the loss and damage that climate change causes. Developed countries are required to help developing countries pay for both adaptation and mitigation, although levels of funding are not specified.

But if it stops there, the Paris Agreement will be nothing more than a feel-good declaration. It is up to us—the privileged as well as the vulnerable—to keep pushing from the bottom up. We have to hold our leaders to meaningful emissions reductions and ensure that vulnerable communities are empowered to sustainably adapt and develop. Otherwise it will not be just a few Alaska villages washing away, their culture irreparably lost, but large swaths of humanity.

The Arctic Offers a Glimpse into Our Planet’s Future

Friday, December 11th, 2015


This past summer an important thing happened in America’s Arctic.

President Obama, who previously had only stopped in Alaska to refuel Air Force One, decided to spend some quality time with us to explore our magnificent landscapes. And he fell in love—not only with our jaw-dropping scenery, but also with our vibrant Alaska Native cultures.

Seven years into his presidency, President Obama finally spent some time exploring Alaska's wilds and meeting with local communities.

Almost seven years into his presidency, President Obama finally spent some quality time exploring Alaska’s wilderness and meeting with local communities.

A friend of mine who works in Washington, D.C., said when she was in the West Wing of the White House a few weeks ago she was startled to see the walls lined with photos of the President’s visit to Alaska. He clearly was impressed.

While in Alaska, President Obama addressed international ministers gathered to discuss climate change with a focus on the Arctic. The President spoke passionately to the need to address climate change and specifically noted that “[…] the Arctic is the leading edge of climate change—our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces.”

I can’t help but think that images of Alaska were at the forefront of the President’s mind when he traveled to Paris to secure a binding worldwide agreement to protect our environment as our planet’s warming accelerates.

Here in Alaska, America’s Arctic, warming happens more than two times faster than the average global rate. Summer sea ice has been reduced by 40% since 1979, and the Arctic Ocean may be completely ice free during summers starting this century.

Arctic communities are already experiencing firsthand the challenges to their homes and food supplies as the climate rapidly changes. Villages face relocation as shorelines erode without sea ice as protection from heavy waves. Failed hunts associated with loss of sea ice have also caused food shortages.

Arctic flora and fauna are particularly vulnerable in the face of these changes, as they have adapted exquisitely to the extremely harsh conditions in the Arctic. The weather alterations, disappearing ice ecosystem, and warming temperatures pose an existential threat to much of the Arctic’s wildlife.

As the sea ice recedes, numerous nations are looking to expand industrial activities into Arctic seas and coastal waters. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that up to 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and up to 30% of the world’s undiscovered gas reserves are located in the Arctic. The world’s largest corporations unabashedly announce the “opening” of the Arctic as an historic moment, rich with opportunity for profit.

Oil companies have been fighting for years to drill in the Alaskan Arctic (in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas) and the Russian Arctic (in the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Kamchatka). And there is tremendous pressure to build new transportation links—ports, rail lines, and roads—to move coal, oil, and gas out of these pristine environments to manufacturing centers around the world.

Commercial shipping companies are plotting new shipping lanes across the “opening” Arctic. This increased ship traffic will dramatically ramp up disturbances to marine mammals, diesel emissions, and the risk of catastrophic oil spills.

But there is hope for the Arctic. If we can slow the rate of climate change, adopt stringent restrictions on discharges into Arctic marine waters, and develop protected areas both on land and in the seas, then we will be able to protect one of the last great wilds on our planet.

Indeed, what happens in Paris this week is important. And I’m glad President Obama will have firsthand images of Alaska and its peoples on his mind as he argues to es of Alaska and its peoples on his mind as he argues to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to reign in climate change.

The Real Heroes of Paris

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015


About two months ago, I ran into an old neighbor—I’ll call him Jim—and he got really excited when he heard I was going to Paris. He was following the news about the upcoming Climate Summit, and he was worried. He feared nothing would get done, that the world’s leaders would dither and argue and not meaningfully address the crisis of climate change.

Jim cares. He wrote a check that week to help underwrite my team’s trip.

We came to Paris to screen documentaries from six different countries, each telling the story of people harmed by nearby coal use. We wanted to help bring forward these local voices to be heard by the international negotiators.

I’ve been thinking about what I can tell Jim about these Paris talks. Should he have reason for hope? Were his fears confirmed?

And, I think the answer may surprise him.

I’ll start by telling him about the sense of optimism that pervades the talks this week. A formal international agreement will likely be reached, and the agreement—however flawed and incomplete—will generate momentum and send an important signal to markets and energy companies, scientists and religious leaders, nations and their citizens, all of us really, that the world is ready and serious to move beyond fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.

But, the real story of Paris has truly been the transcendent power of an increasingly massive, diverse, and global climate activism. This activism goes well beyond the environmental movement, which is indeed here in force. It includes a massive showing by city mayors, states and provinces, CEOs, ocean scientists, climate economists, writers and filmmakers, college students and school children, health experts and activists, radicals and militant moderates.

These folks didn’t just show up these two weeks. They’ve been working for years, with accelerating success the past 5-10 years. They are the story of Paris. They created the momentum that the world leaders at Paris are building upon, and they will be the frontrunners, post-Paris, in fighting to accelerate the world’s clean energy transformation quickly enough to keep us below a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

To give a taste of what it is like to be here:

Yesterday on the street I ran into author and co-founder of, Bill McKibben, and he was talking with respected indigenous leader Princess Lucaj who fights on behalf of rapidly transforming Arctic communities.

Bil McKibben etc FIX

Bill McKibben, co-founder of, with indigenous leader Princess Lucaj in Paris.

A few days earlier, I heard a scientist from the low-lying island of Palau speak of the need for action now, not later, to help all low-lying islands contend with disappearing villages and sinking coastlines.

Describing her movie at our film festival, Filipina lawyer Krizna Gomez spoke of the ambivalence of those who make a living from coal but knew it was harming them and their children.

Krizna Gomez is a lawyer who is illuminating the connection between human rights and coal in the global south.

Krizna Gomez, a lawyer who is making the connection between human rights and coal in the global south.

Russian activist filmmaker Vladimir Slivyak acknowledged the challenge to confronting coal in Russia today, but argued that there was no choice: “It must be done.”

Vladimir Slivjak is a Russian environmental leader and social justice activist and co-founder of Ecodefense.

Vladimir Slivjak, a Russian environmental leader, social justice activist, and co-founder of Ecodefense.

California Governor Jerry Brown is here to sign agreements with other “subnational” states and provinces from around the world that want to act faster than their national governments. California officials tell me that the formal subnational coalition helps them share information and make faster progress in reducing greenhouse gas pollution from cars and coal plants while growing their solar and wind replacements.

So here it is:

Dear Jim:

The story of Paris is that the civil society hungry to address climate change has become massive, sophisticated, focused, and more assured of its ultimate success. The challenge is to succeed quickly enough to avoid most of the loss and damage.

So, the story of Paris is that it’s not quite as important as it looks. The agreement will be a good thing, a necessary thing, but it’s not the leaders of the world who are going to save us. It’s we who have created the political momentum coming into Paris for those leaders to do the right thing, and it’s we who are going to save ourselves with our leadership in coming years.

Thank you, Jim, and I look forward to partnering with you.

Climate Justice for Coastal Communities

Sunday, December 6th, 2015


As sea level rises, low-lying coastal communities around the world are facing the prospect of relocation.

Some of these communities are on remote islands that many have never heard of. Others may be familiar to Americans from the west coast of Alaska and Washington State, and from the bayous of Louisiana.

Many of these communities are home to families that have been there for hundreds or even thousands of years…families that cannot imagine living elsewhere. Many of these communities are not what we would consider “developed” and have contributed little to greenhouse gas emissions.

What does this have to do with Paris?

A few people from these communities have managed to come to Paris to be heard. They call for climate justice, meaning that those who have the most responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and sea level rise help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change and move forward with low carbon development.

Climate justice also means that vulnerable communities have a voice in decision-making regarding climate change adaptation and mitigation. Migration and adaptation have only just begun to draw international attention, as we realize that adaptive efforts will be needed even if we suddenly stop all greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this week I heard a presentation on “Climate Change and Migration” from European social science researchers looking at the causes of migration, the role of inequality, and what kind of policies we need to manage human mobility and climate change.

The conversation continued yesterday, December 5, with “Climate Induced Migrants: Question on Rights and Responsibilities” and “Human Mobility and Climate Change,” presented by United Nations officials, on December 10. Of course, only high-level representatives from accredited entities will be able to attend these events, but getting recognition of these issues from a “top-down” perspective is important.

Because right now there just isn’t much in the way of “top-down” policy and assistance for people faced with the prospect of climate change relocation. There is no climate change adaptation agency or law in my state of Alaska, much less my country of the United States. Alaska’s indigenous shoreline communities watch their traditional lands erode into the water while politicians deny that humans have any sort of role in climate change.

Perhaps the seeds of change will come from the bottom-up. In Alaska, communities are cooperating with universities to figure out how they can be more resilient, and how they can learn from each other. The Alaska Native Village of Newtok formed its own collaborative partnership with dozens of state and federal agencies to plan its own relocation. Tribes and municipalities are coming up with climate change adaptation plans.

The Alaska Native community of Newtok whose territory is eroding into the adjacent river. PHOTO: Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

This bottom-up movement is even taking shape at the international level. Countries came to Paris with their own voluntary commitments to cut emissions. Will they be enough to stop the rising tide and avoid the relocation of vulnerable communities?

Probably not, which is why we cannot lose sight of climate justice. Let’s all mitigate climate change, but let’s also help make sure everyone has a home.


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